The Ride: Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond

Part 2 in series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another.  And so are the classic spiritual disciplines.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Micaiah with ‘Maryland’: The crankiest and best horse in the Equestrian Center’s stable

As I write this, I am watching my daughter, Micaiah, take a riding lesson at the Equestrian Center in Burbank, CA. The Equestrian Center is, uh, shall we say, “oddly out of place” in urban Los Angeles. On my right, traffic on the Golden State Freeway (“the” 5, as we say here in L.A.) zooms by at 65+ miles per hour. On my left, horses plod around a riding circle at, well, a lot less than 65 miles per hour. What gives?

Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation? It takes years to painstakingly advance through learning to walk, trot, cantor, gallop, jump, dressage, etc. Then, once you do achieve riding excellence, your top speed is still only a fraction of that of the traffic whizzing by. My daughter shovels, “stuff,” to earn her lessons, but most riders shell out enough cash to cover monthly payments on a luxury car. I mean, if your goal is to get from Pasadena to Hollywood, then this horseback riding thing is a total waste of time. Just buy a Jag and get on with it.

Yet if you think of horseback riding as something designed to get you somewhere on your busy schedule then you are missing the entire point. Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another. The disciplines of learning to ride cleanse the rider of the soul-deadening effects of modern life and “re-center” their soul in a calmer, deeper place. My actress-singer daughter says it’s “rejuvenating.” Seeing the light and energy in her eyes after each time she rides, I believe her.

Spiritual Disciplines

Now at first glance, striving to master 2,000 year-old spiritual disciplines seems even more irrelevant than learning to ride a horse. I mean, at least horseback riding might help you land a role, or inspire a screenplay. What earthly good does it do to invest the time and energy it takes to master practices like prayer, meditation, fasting, Torah-study, or Psalm-singing? Sure, prayer can come in handy when you’re facing an audition, pitch meeting, or financing appointment. But this kind of “spiritual discipline” is practiced by everyone in Hollywood (even the staunchest atheists), and probably has about as much utilitarian value as wearing your lucky pair of socks.  Prep for your meeting, pay for some good coaching, and get on with it.

Yet, if you think of the spiritual disciplines only as something to get you somewhere in your career, you are missing the entire point. Spiritual disciplines are not tools for getting you from failure to success. They are pathways for keeping you alive spiritually in the constantly shifting landscape of success and failure that is Hollywood.

The Soul-Deadening Worlds of Power

The overarching characteristic of the Ivy League (and Hollywood) is what Schmelzer calls, “Grim drivenness.

Actor/Comedienne/Writer Susan Isaacs once challenged a crowd of aspiring entertainment industry students, “Would you accept God’s call to Hollywood if you knew that you would only have three successful years out of a thirty-year career?” Most wouldn’t, yet that is about the average for those who ‘make it’ here.  The spiritual disciplines are the means by which someone survives and even thrives, not only in the three years when they’re a hot property, but in the other twenty-seven as well.

Make no mistake, the competitive nature of all centers of power–Hollywood, the Ivy League, Wall Street, Washington, D.C., etc.–nearly always creates a soul-deadening culture. Former Yale Professor Henri Nouwen warned, “Our society is… a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul.”[1] Dave Schmelzer, principal at Blue Ocean, Inc. in Cambridge, MA asserts the overarching characteristic of his Ivy League community is what he calls, “Grim drivenness.”  Dave adds, “These are the brightest and most talented people in the world, and the very drivenness that got them this far in a highly competitive environment prevents them from ever really enjoying the fruit of their success. There is always another rung to climb on the ladder of success.”[2] Sounds a lot like Hollywood to me!

Yokes that Bring Our Souls Rest

Spiritual disciplines counteract this soul-deadening effect by nourishing the soul of the practitioner and re-centering the filmmaker, professor, stockbroker, and/or congressman in a calmer, deeper place. Prayer, meditation, study, etc. are means by which we deepen our connection to others and to God. Nearly everyone working in a pressure-filled environment can benefit from practicing them—from Zen Buddhist’s like Laker’s coach Phil Jackson, to Scientologists like Tom Cruise.

However, the spiritual disciplines play a particularly meaningful role in the Judeao-Christian tradition. They are part of what early Rabbis referred to as their yoke—the teachings and spiritual practices each Rabbi used to guide their students into a deeper relationship with God.[3] Like learning to ride a horse, the study of Torah—the principal spiritual discipline in rabbinic education—demanded the utmost commitment to move from one level of expertise to the next. Yet, the promise of a life centered in God and his ways made the effort worthwhile. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education.)

Connecting to the Life of God

Jesus of Nazareth built upon this rabbinic tradition to shape his own version of spiritual formation. Jesus told his first followers, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He taught his disciples to pray, study, build community, and serve not to earn religious brownie points, but to form a deep attachment to God—to ‘rest’ in him. Like vines on a branch, Jesus promised his followers that if they would focus upon staying connected to the life of God, then the life of God would flow into them and bear fruit in everything they do (John 15:1-8). The spiritual disciplines are one of the key means by which we maintain that connection. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

USC philosophy professor, Dallas Willard, has worked tirelessly over the last few decades to describe how Christian spiritual formation can and should help us maintain our connection to the life and the love of God in the Academy, Hollywood, and beyond. He states:

“God’s desire for us is that we should live in him. He sends us the Way to himself.  That shows us, in his heart of hearts, what God is really like–indeed, what reality is really like. In its deepest nature and meaning our universe is a community of boundless and totally competent love.”

Personalizing the Process

Like horseback riding, staying connected to the life and love of God is not a one-size-fits-all process. It has taken Micaiah years to find the right stable, the right trainer, the right horse (the crankiest, but “best” in the stable), and the right sub-disciplines to learn to ride in a way that maximizes the ‘gladness’ riding brings her soul. The same is true for those seeking to cultivate a relationship with God. The disciplines that help one person are often torture for another. The key for some is sitting quietly in a beautiful sanctuary, for others it is walking in the beauty of nature, for some connection to God is found among books in a quiet library, for still another it is best found amidst music is a raucous worship service.

The point of spiritual discipline is not to perform some cookie-cutter religious ritual to make God like you better, but rather to find the pathways that best help your soul connect to the God who already loves you infinitely, ultimately, and unconditionally.

In the following weeks I will explore a number of the key concepts and disciplines that have been most helpful to a variety of leaders in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and beyond in living a soul-nourishing life in a soul-deadening world.  My hope is that we can help you create your own individualized set of spiritual disciplines that help you stay connected to the life and love of God even in the most pressurized situations.

Of course there is another way: the way of giving in to a soul-deadness. Will we? Or will we follow my daughter’s example and embrace an “outdated” approach to life, that in the end is the only one capable of transporting us where we really want to go—to the very heart of God.

Let’s ride!

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Next post in series: Life on the Fast Track: Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments 

 

See also

Emmy Magazine Article Featuring Emmy-winning Producer Kurt Schemper, Director Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

Why Lent is a lot Like Surfing

Spiritual formation book recommendations:

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Alberg Calhoun

The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg

The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

Invitation to a Journey, by Robert Mulholland

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero

The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard

 


[1] The Way of the Heart (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 9.

[2] At least in the Ivy League it is possible to get tenure!

[3] M. Maher (1975). ‘Take my yoke upon you’ (Matt. xi. 29). New Testament Studies, 22, pp 97-103

 

Ponce de León on Steroids: What does Christian maturity look like in a youth-worshiping culture? by John Ortberg

A response to Thomas E. Bergler’s The Juvenilization of American Christianity

Because we increasingly live in a post-Christian culture, any church leader must seek to discover how to contextualize the gospel to our culture. And our culture is a youth-worshiping, Justin Bieberized, Twilight-Hunger Games-Kardashian culture.

by John Ortberg

I ran across a generationally concerned quote while reading University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright recently:

“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days … children no longer obey their parents.”

It was chiseled on an Assyrian stone tablet around 2800 B.C. And it may well have been true. You don’t see a lot of thriving Assyrian family ministries these days.

The “things are getting worse” narrative is a comet with a long tail in human history and has particular resonance with today’s evangelical community. Thomas Bergler’s thoughtful exploration of American youth ministry taps into that narrative with a wealth of information that will be new even for many of us who grew up in the evangelical world. And it will prompt many questions about a dilemma that has troubled the American church for a long while: What kind of people are we trying to reach, and what kind of people are we trying to produce, and is it possible to do both simultaneously?

Youth has always been worshiped in its own way. After all, Ponce de León didn’t risk his life and fortune searching for the Fountain of Maturity. But what was once a quest has become an industry. Between Rogaine, Viagra, Botox, and Gingko, the fountain of youth has turned out to be pharmacological.

Bergler poses as his thesis that an inescapable tension struck the core of American Christianity during the 1930s and ’40s: Should church leaders aggressively seek to adapt to youth culture and risk altering the faith, or should they avoid youth culture and risk losing the youth?

One of the difficulties in answering that question is the lack of a baseline. To truly measure the cost of adapting to youth culture, we would need to have a good gauge of the “maturity level” of people whom churches were turning out in the three or four decades before the ’30s and the rise of youth culture. The emergence of adolescence as a prolonged developmental stage of life is clear; judging its impact on national character would require some kind of assessment of prior national character.

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Two Handed Warriors at Eight Months

Reflections on the Relaunch of Two Handed Warriors

Dear Two Handed Warrior Community,

When Sue and I first launched Two Handed Warriors eight months ago we never could have imagined how many people would connect with our theme. All we had was a deep conviction that an unnecessary dichotomy between faith and culture has plagues both the quality of life and overall effectiveness of an entire generation of leaders.

Leaders adept at culture-making—whether in Hollywood or the Ivy League—are rarely trained in the disciplines of faith-building; whereas leaders with strengths in faith-building—whether in a local congregation or an international relief agency–are rarely trained in the art of culture-making.

It is a dichotomy that not only creates glaring blind spots in our leadership (and personal lives), it also robs us of a vibrant conversation with other leaders from whom we have the most to learn.

We launched Two Handed Warriors in hopes that it would inspire an ongoing conversation among educators, filmmakers, business and spiritual leaders devoted to gaining expertise in BOTH faith-building and culture-making. Our hope was that (in time) such a conversation might help birth a movement of intellectuals, artists, leaders, and philanthropists who could redefine faith and culture for an entire generation.

Our hunch was that such a movement of experts in such diverse fields could be unified by developing a common “school of thought” centered on a deeper understanding of “the stories we live by” at the deepest level of our societal and personal worldviews. Or at least that story was one place where filmmakers and college professors, musicians and CEOs, scientists and pastors could meet as equals and develop a common language for tackling the reintegration of faith and culture in their own lives and in the organizations they lead.

On the one hand, THW has exceeded our wildest dreams. Readership has outstripped anything Sue and I could have imagined. On the other hand, THW still has a long way to go in fostering the kind of conversation we envisioned.

Toward that end we are going to try a few new strategies in this next year.

First, we’ll be hosting a series of face-to-face conversations among key leaders in variety of settings–Entertainment, Education, Ministry, etc.–to help better understand the unique issues facing leaders in each setting and (Lord willing) foster the kind of relationships required for a deeper ongoing conversation. (The next step will be cross-pollination meetings between leaders in different contexts.)

Second, we are going to accept some graciously offered help in upping our social media game. These experts tell us that we are seriously under utilizing Twitter and Facebook and have a very time-consuming email system. Please be patient with us as we try new things and let us now if they are helpful (or not).  The goal is to build community, not annoy people.

Third, we are officially asking for help. We need to solidify our team of writers, editors, photographers, graphic designers, event planners, administrators, etc.  If you have the time and talent we have the need. We’ve got some exciting new pieces and projects in the works, but with my sabbatical coming to an end, we need HELP bringing the website to print and peer group gatherings to reality!

Finally, we want to say thank you to everyone who helped get us this far. We never would have made it without the generous help of so many dear friends. We’d like to give special thanks to Margaret Feinberg, Scot McKnight, Mike Friesen, Dale Kuehne, Dave Schmelzer, Lem Usita, Cheryl McKay Price, Cathleen Falsani, Lauren Hunter, Dean Batali, Sheryl Anderson, Phil and Kathleen Cooke, Erik Lokkesmoe, Jessica Rieder, Michael Warren, Monica Macer, Kurt Schemper, Kevin Chesley, Korey Scott Pollard, John David Ware, Jenn Gotzon, Chris Armstrong, Ashley Arielle, Adam Caress, Dennis Ingolfsland, David Kinnaman, Jay Barnes, Ralph Enloe, McCoy Tyner, Chris Fletcher, Neal and Laurie Barton, Todd Burns, Chris Easterly, Jeremy Story, Bret McCracken, Brian Bird, Ken Minkema, Rich Gathro, Peter Kapsner, Ray and Wendy Hanson, Craig Case, David McFadzean, Dallas Willard, Chuck Swindoll, John Ortberg, Tim and Char Savaloja, Lisa Whittle, Michael Hyatt, Randy Elrod, Ian Collings, Ken Stewart, Dale Schlafer, Dave Warn, Jeremy Story, Mark Russell, Amy Larson, Ben and Rochelle, Jake and Erin, Mario and Kathy, Bill Diggins, Brent Kanyok, Carol Shell Harris, Dave Warn, Doug Clark, Kelly Erickson, Drason Anderson, Keri Lowe, Scott Smith, Steve and Diane Dunkle , John and Laurie Bruns, Wes Wilmer, Wesley Tullis, William Bergeron, René Delgado, Stanley D. Williams, Shun Lee Fong, Jaeson Ma, Jim and Karen Covell, Rodney Stark, Dean Smith, Amanda Llewellyn, Bren and Melissa Smith, Kait Stratton, Ron Jesberg, Brent Kanyok, Randy Elrod, Deborah Arca Mooney, Libby Slate, Jack Gilbert, David Medders, Gabe Lyons and the entire Q Ideas team.

May your tribe increase!

Please let us know if you’re sensing a calling to pitch in.

Grace and great mercy,

Gary and Sue

 

For more info on Two Handed Warriors, see:  You Shall Not Pass! The Supernatural Power of Two Handed Warfare

 

Guard Your Calling, Frodo, by John Ortberg

An ongoing series: Two Handed Authors and Bloggers you Should Know.

John Ortberg believes his calling is to lead people to “spiritual formation,” which is how people become more like Jesus. Through his humorous teachings he brings practical applications of Scripture to those around him.

John was born in Rockford, Illinois and received his Bachelors from Wheaton College. He went on to earn a Masters of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology from Fuller Seminary and pursued post graduate studies at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Since 2003, John has served as the Senior Pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. And he is the author of If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat and The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Growth for Ordinary People. John and his wife of twenty years, Nancy, have three children

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My introduction: Heroic leadership is servant leadership. This means that all heroic leadership eventually leads to the end of yourself. You simply can’t lead with the goal of meeting the needs of others without encountering moments when the cost is the sacrifice of your own needs.  Author John Ortberg taps into one of the more powerful literary and cinematic examples of heroic servant leadership–Frodo Baggins–to find the words to describe the critical nature of “Morder moments” in servant leadership.

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Guard Your Calling, Frodo

I ran across a striking statistic recently—90 percent of people who enter vocational ministry will end up in another field. (I wish I could remember the source. I’m pretty sure it was reliable, though I know our subculture is filled with what Christian Smith calls “evangelicals using statistics badly.” And 80 percent of all statistics are just made up. You can quote me.)

Of course, lots of folks who didn’t start in local church ministry will end up there.

And we live in a day when job change is a way of life; “40 years and a gold watch” stopped a long time ago.

But it got me thinking about the notion of calling.

There is something sacred about being called.

And a sense of calling needs desperately to be guarded.

Frodo's transformation from happy-go-lucky Shire youth, into an empire-shaking servant leader came at a tremendous price.

My daughter and I were re-watching Lord of the Rings before Christmas. At one point, on the last part of the journey through Mordor, Frodo turns to Sam and tells him how badly he wishes he did not have to be the one to carry the Ring. Being the Ring-Bearer was a difficult and dangerous role. He took it up voluntarily; he knew it was a worthy task; he understood in some dim way that he was suited for it—even his weakness was part of his gifting, and yet the cost of it wore him down.

Scholars sometimes speak of a distinctness that Christianity added to the idea of a vocation. The Greeks gloried in achievement; heroism was much to be aspired to. However, it was generally understood as a way to express the strength and greatness of the hero. The hero chose what army to lead and what battle to fight.

In the story of the Jesus movement, accomplishment was a more complex journey. From the history of Israel came the notion of a life not so much planned for glory as interrupted by God: “And the word of the Lord came to …” Having the word of the Lord come to you is a little like bearing the Ring—you may know it’s a glorious and powerful thing, but the task can wear on you after a while.

In ancient Greece, heroism was a chosen path.

In the Jesus story, it became a calling greater than oneself; both a glorious quest to be achieved but also a spending of oneself for Something larger.

“But you have been chosen,” Gandalf says to Frodo. “And you must therefore use such strength and hearts and wits as you have.”

You have been chosen. I don’t know if you (or I) am in exactly the perfect fitting job. But that’s not the issue.

You have been chosen.

And this sense of having been called—the worthiness of it, the glorious goodness of a life lived beyond an individual’s agenda—is a precious thing. It is sometimes subverted into grandiosity. It is perhaps more often lost in the ministry of the mundane. It needs to be guarded.

Sometimes, in the quest, we get to visit the House of Elrond; the Fellowship is united and strong, the plans are glorious, hope is fierce, and hearts beat fast.

But you don’t get to spend every day there.

All ministry involves slogging through Mordor…

To read the entire article click: Guard Your Calling Frodo.

Jay Barnes, President of Bethel University, on “The Influencers Who Influenced Me”

Series Introduction: The journey toward reimagining faith and culture is never traveled alone. I asked some key cultural influencers: “Who are authors, artists, filmmakers, screenwriters, poets, musicians, films, books, plays, TV shows, or any other cultural artifact who have deeply influenced you and will always stick with you.” Then gave them only fifteen minutes to complete their list, to keep it “unedited.” (Part of an ongoing series.)

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Jay Barnes, President of Bethel University and Consummate Servant Leader.

Dr. Jay Barnes, President of Bethel University in Arden Hills, Minn., is an outstanding example of servant leadership. Jay has been a leader in Christian higher education for more than 30 years, both in academics and student development. Before becoming Bethel’s president, Jay served for 13 years as the university’s Provost and executive vice president. Prior to his time at Bethel, Barnes held at Messiah College (Penn), Wheaton College (Ill.), and at Black Forest Academy in Kandern, Germany.

Jay is known for his collaborative leadership, team-building skills, and student-centered approach to higher education. During his career, he took lead roles in improving student development theory and practices on a national level with the Association for Christians in Student Development. For many years, Jay and his wife, Barb, have co-led counseling groups for engaged students and have conducted workshops nationally on marriage enrichment.

Jay’s tenure at Bethel has also been marked by his deep commitment to racial reconciliation. Under Jay’s guidance, Bethel University began a Reconciliation developed one of the only bachelor’s degree in reconciliation studies in the nation.

With over 6,000 students in bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in nearly 100 relevant fields, Bethel University is a national leader in Christian higher education

Denny Morrow, Associate Executive Director, ReachGlobal, and former Executive Director of Daystar University (Kenya) asserts: “Jay is a quintessential servant leader. He is laser focused on excellence for himself and the University, but equally important, Jay listens well to others. His rare combination of a strong will and a self-deprecating humor engenders trust for those he leads.” I could not agree more. I’ve know Jay since he was my Resident Director at Wheaton College and have found him to be one of the more consistently Christlike servant leaders I have met in all my years in higher education.

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Jay’s top 15 influencers

Chapel Jai Ho Dance: Bethel's voluntary chapel services attract over half the student body three times each week

C.S. Lewis

Philip Yancey

Henri Nouwen

Jim Collins

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mother Teresa

John Ortberg

The Prodigal Son (painting by Rembrandt)

David (sculpture by Michelangelo)

Good Will Hunting

Under Jay's leadership Bethel established one of the only B.A. in Reconciliation Studies programs in the world.

A Man For All Seasons

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians

Dietrich Bonheoffer

John Stott

God’s Long Summer (by Charles Marsh)

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What’s on your “Fab 15″ list?

1)  Your list must be comprised of cultural artifacts readers have access to. You can’t include your Mom, or some other leader who had a personal impact on you, but who readers will never have the chance to meet.

2) Try to make your list in no more than fifteen minutes if you can, but take more time if you need it.

Bethel's 231-acre lakeside campus is highlighted by the newly opened $30 million Brushaber Commons